For a band who has consistently flown so far under the radar, Boston’s Bent Knee have never stopped writing like everyone in the world is listening. The closest thing they’ve gotten to a breakout moment was Shiny Eyed Babies, a highly conceptual mix of progressive rock and art pop, with plenty of inspiration from musical theatre and classical music. This album established Bent Knee as one of the decade’s most thoughtful and ambitious new artists, and its cult following led to tour dates with Leprous, Thank You Scientist, and the last ever round of Dillinger Escape Plan shows.
In the past few years, Bent Knee have dialed back the theatre of their work, but certainly not the drama. By their fifth album You Know What They Mean, the Disney-esque songs like “Untitled” and “Counselor” are long gone, traded out for a more uniformly heavy and polished sound than ever before and a newfound affinity for electronics.
Make no mistake, this is still absolutely a rock band. This summer’s segmented lead single “Catch Light” paves a new road for them with electronic drums and powerful synthesizers, but the guitars have just as much depth and swagger as ever. Songs like “Bone Rage” stay in more traditional lanes, focusing on a rare amount of groove while simultaneously dipping toes into louder math rock pools.
The other single from the album is “Hold Me In,” a song that has been described by guitarist Ben Levin as being about “someone gripping their emotions so hard that unprecedented waves of pain and beauty shoot out from between their fingers.” This concept is put to music with verses that harbour a concentrated tension, which spills out in wide-open choruses that are stunningly belted by the band’s powerhouse lead vocalist Courtney Swain.
The emotions that Levin references include confusion and fear, to be sure, but the true nature of You Know What They Mean is anger. Anger is first floated by the accusatory album title, which could appear as a cornerstone statement in any revolutionary speech, and scooped heavy-handedly into “Bone Rage,” the first full song on the album. On “Lovemenot,” the political turns to personal as the narrator cries out toward a partner in an unhealthy romance. “You love me or you love me not,” she yells in apparent demand of an answer, elaborating with gestures toward resentment and infidelity (“We’ll stand together not standing one another/Blowing kisses at the others”).
At times of departure from this theme, the album tends to break further toward the abstract. The haunting string melodies and electric flutters of “It Happens” are interspersed with lilting dream-like memories of romantic flings of years past, shrugging off the failures to get to a more serious place as (you guessed it) “It happens.” On the curiously titled “Egg Replacer,” Swain towers over pummeling guitars with pure vocal nonsense, riffing on lyrics so incomprehensible that the CD and LP versions of the lyric sleeve can’t even agree on them.
Some of the band’s best material to date comes in the climactic moments of this album, namely “Garbage Shark” and “Golden Hour.” The former gradually builds from subtly plucked strings as Swain whispers for release, as if to surrender to a siren’s call. The levee breaks all at once into an orchestral tsunami, delivering some of the most intense music on the record that even manages to be a little bit frightening.
This segues directly into “Golden Hour,” the eye of the storm and effectively the call to action of the record. By this point, the anger has fully given way to a desire to start anew from the rubble. Swain muses on the worth of love even in the face of heartbreak, behind what eventually grows into an emotionally conflicted whirlwind of harmony. “We love to give, we love to lose, we love to live, we love to die,” she sings. In a double-sided declaration of fear and hope, she finally lands on two feet with the core conclusion of the entire album: “All the love in the world is not enough.”
With a band that has as much to say as Bent Knee, each new era is truly a reincarnation. You Know What They Mean is their fifth album, but it’s also their fifth new identity, and their fifth refusal to slip up or stop evolving even for a second.